Pakistani authorities say an apparent suicide bombing has killed at least 69 people, mostly women and children, and wounded hundreds more after a blast tore through the parking lot of a crowded public park in the eastern city of Lahore where Christians were celebrating Easter Sunday.
An affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the deadly March 27 blast, saying it deliberately targeted Christians celebrating Easter at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park near the center of the city of some 8 million.
Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Taliban faction calling itself Jamat ul Ahrar, warned that the group would carry out more attacks and that the attack was a "message" to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who counts the Punjab province and its capital, Lahore, as a political stronghold.
The same group claimed responsibility earlier this month for a March 7 suicide bombing at the entrance to a court building in northwestern Pakistan that killed at least 17. It described that attack as revenge for the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last month for the 2011 killing of a provincial governor.
Officials said many women and children were among the dead and wounded in Lahore on March 27.
WATCH: Scores Killed In Pakistan Park Bombing (natural sound, viewers may find some scenes disturbing)
It was not immediately known how many of the dead and injured were from the Christian community.
Lahore's top administration official, Muhammad Usman, said the death toll had reached 69 people. Officials said more than 280 were also wounded.
"The rescue operation is continuing," Usman was quoted by AFP as saying.
A medical superintendent at a Lahore hospital told AFP that most of the wounded were in critical condition. "I fear the death toll will rise," he said
Reuters reported that the blast occurred just outside the park's exit gate and a few meters from children's swings.
Senior police official Haider Ashraf said the explosion appeared to have been a suicide bombing, noting that ball bearings were found at the park. He added that the area was crowded with Christians celebrating the Easter holidays.
Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi called Sharif to condemn the attack.
The White House condemned the apparent suicide attack as "cowardly" and pledged to work with Pakistan to defeat those who terrorize the country.
"The United States condemns in the strongest terms today's appalling terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan," Ned Price, a spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama's National Security Council, said in a statement.
"This cowardly act in what has long been a scenic and placid park has killed dozens of innocent civilians and left scores injured," Price added.
Media footage and witness accounts revealed the gruesome carnage left in the wake of the blast.
Children and women were shown standing in pools of blood outside the park, crying and screaming. Rescue officials, police, and bystanders carried injured people to ambulances and private cars.
Javed Ali, a 35-year-old resident who lives across from the park, told AFP that he told his family not to go to there because it was overcrowded with Christians celebrating Easter.
He said the explosion shattered the windows of his home.
"Everything was shaking, there were cries and dust everywhere," he told AFP. "After ten minutes I went outside. There was human flesh on the walls of our house. People were crying, I could hear ambulances."
Overall levels of militant violence in Pakistan have fallen since the army launched a major offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds in the northwest border areas in 2014, though militants continue to stage major attacks occasionally.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa